Five Things to Know: U-23 MNT's Road to Rio

U.S. One Game Away from Returning to the Olympics

The final spot for the men’s soccer competition at 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro will be decided on Tuesday, March 29 at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas. Here are five things to know about the U-23 MNT’s Road to Rio.

WHAT’S AT STAKE: A spot at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in August.

The men’s soccer competition in the Summer Olympics will feature 16 countries. Fifteen are already determined. The United States and Colombia are fighting for the final spot in the home-and-away Olympic Qualifying Playoff. The team that scores the most goals during the two legs will win the series and be on their way to Rio (tiebreakers explained below).

The U.S. has competed in the Men’s Olympic soccer competition 13 times, including five straight tournaments from 1984 to 2000. In addition, the U.S. qualified for – but did not compete in – the 1980 Moscow Games following a boycott by the U.S. Olympic Committee. Now the U.S. hopes to return to the Olympics for the first time since the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, where it posted a 1-1-1 record but did not advance past the group stage.

THE FIRST STEP: Last Friday the U.S. U-23 MNT and Colombia tied the first-leg 1-1 in the scorching heat of Barranquilla, Colombia. Luis Gil put the USA ahead after five minutes, and then Colombia tied the game on a 66th minute penalty kick.

Playing on the road in hostile environments is par for the course in this region. However, it’s rare for Youth National Teams to face similar conditions on the road with so much riding on getting a positive result. Some of the players talked about the experience, which included a stray dog wanting to take part in warm ups.

THE SECOND STEP: The two-game series shifts to Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas on Tuesday, March 29 at 8:30 p.m. CT (live on ESPN2).

This is where things get a little complicated. The Olympic Qualifying Playoff winner is determined by the aggregate score from both games. In the event that the score is tied, goals scored by the away team count double.

Since the first match finished 1-1, if either side wins on Tuesday they would clinch the Olympic berth. A scoreless draw would send the USA to Brazil, a 1-1 draw would force extra time, and any other draw would see Colombia through due to away goals.

If it does go to a 30-minute extra time, whoever scores more goals would win. However if neither team scores, the Olympic entrant would be decided on penalty kicks. But, if each team scores the same number of goals in extra time, Colombia would win by having more away goals (one in regulation, plus their total in extra time).

WHO TO WATCH: Under Olympic and FIFA statues, every player on the Olympic qualifying teams must be 23 years old or younger (have been born on or after Jan. 1, 1993). The U.S. and Colombia rosters feature players who play professionally on clubs in 11 different countries combined, from the U.S., Canada and Colombia to England, Germany, Italy, Holland, Norway, France, Argentina and Mexico.

The U.S. and Colombia met each other in another do-or-die game last year at the FIFA Under-20 World Cup in New Zealand, where the U.S. beat Colombia 1-0 in the Round of 16 to advance to the Quarterfinals. Dallas natives Kellyn Acosta and Emerson Hyndman, as well as Paul Arriola, Matt Miazga and Desevio Payne all started for the U.S. in that match last summer and are on the U-23 team this week.

Colombia’s Alvaro Montero, Juan Sebastian Quintero, Davinson Sanchez, Jarlan Barrera, and Rafael Santos Borre also started that match. All but Borre will also be in Frisco. Borre, who played last week in Colombia, was forced to withdraw due to injury.

Both teams also feature up-and-coming players with senior national team experience. Among the nine U.S. players who have earned caps is forward Jordan Morris, who has one goal in nine senior team games. Colombia also counts on a number of players who have played on their senior team. One addition to the team since the first leg is midfielder Guillermo Celis, who last week played the full 90 in Colombia’s dramatic 3-2 FIFA World Cup qualifying victory over Bolivia. 

AND WHAT ABOUT THE OTHER GAME: The U-23 MNT game is actually the second game of the night for U.S. Soccer. The full Men’s National Team will kick off the doubleheader with a huge 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifier against Guatemala in Columbus, Ohio. Both matches will be broadcast live on ESPN2 – with the men’s game kicking off at 7:30 p.m. ET, and the do-or-die Olympic Qualifying Playoff kicking off immediately afterwards at 9:30 p.m. ET.